This winter, two factories in the Zhejiang province of China won’t have endure an entirely bitter winter. For the first time, the workers have winter coats, heaters and even an entertainment system.
All thanks to a group of New York University students who had lived 230 miles away in Shanghai.
During his fall study abroad semester in Shanghai, NYU senior Drew Todrys and a team of 20 managed to raise $4,250 for the factories using classic fundraiser techniques like bake sales and raffles.
What started out as a germ of an idea snowballed into a miniature organization that ended up gaining the support of the NYU Shanghai staff — and even local Chinese university students.
And it was all accomplished in a mere three weeks.
“It is incredible how a handful of students could potentially benefit the lives of 200 to 700 people for the long term and in return who knows, maybe those people will better someone else’s life later,” Todrys, who had previously been involved in community work in Ghana, Costa Rica and Nicaragua before, said.
The inspiration for the cause began in the classroom.
A documentary by Chinese-Canadian director Lixin Fan, “Last Train Home” was playing in one of Todrys’ classes. The movie, which followed a family of migrant workers struggling for stability, made an immediate impact.
“Seeing the people’s face and seeing them suffering, it was just something I latched onto,” Todrys said.
According to the 2010 census, it is estimated that there are over 261 million migrant workers in China. Migrant workers are primarily rural farmers who move to urban cities to pursue higher standards of living. They leave their families and become integrated into factory life – residing in factory dormitories and usually coming home only during the Chinese New Year.
Factories pack in workers from around the country. With limited healthcare and no family, the workers often face dismal conditions.
“After watching the movie, I got an opportunity to go to a factory,” Todrys said. His father, the president and CEO of Todson Inc, a bike company, had connections to two factories in the Zhejiang Province.
Guided by his father’s employee, Todrys and three of his NYU colleagues bought a train ticket from Shanghai to the factory.
“The living quarters were really dirty,” Jason Wang, a NYU junior said. “Everything looked run down and there were no heaters or jackets. They had several needs but we had to narrow it down.”
The group began reaching out to the NYU community in Shanghai. With bake sales, raffles and man-on-the-street fundraising, the effort began to gain traction.
“It is terrific that [they] took the initiative by stepping out of their comfort zone and making an effort to get to know a part of China that’s very different from what they see on the surface level in Shanghai,” Julie Sisk, the assistant director for student life at NYU Shanghai said.
The project began officially on November 23 and by the end of the semester on December 16, the group accumulated a total of $4,250 – enough to buy 150 coats, 150 mini heaters, and an entertainment system for the workers.
But success did not come easy.
“There was a huge language and cultural barrier,” Todrys said. “I didn’t know the language and had to rely on my friends who knew Chinese. The slow technology did not help either. Facebook was accessible, but slow, and sometimes I couldn’t even get on my e-mail.”
Todrys and his team were also forced to race against time.
“We were expanding and it was a shame that we only had a three week span,” he said.
But the results exceeded their expectations. Their initial goal was around 20,000 Renminbi (RMB), or $3,166 U.S. By the end of the semester they managed to rake in 26,850 RMB, or $4,250, from their fundraising efforts and donations from friends and family back home.
Roughly a month after leaving Shanghai, Todrys is still looking for ways to help the community. He is currently interning for Federation Employment and Guidance Service (FEGS), a nonprofit organization that provides cost-effective health and human services, where he will help with art therapy.
“You have to investigate yourself. You have to be passionate about it and you have to let that passion spill over onto others,” Todrys, who plans to pursue a non-profit job after graduation said.
For Wang, the experience taught him about the importance of being proactive.
“No matter where you are, you need to capitalize on local connections,” he said. “Don’t rule anything out. If they say no, move onto another person. You’ll eventually get that yes.”
Though Todrys and Wang left Shanghai before they could personally see the benefits of their fundraising, the factory has since sent them pictures of the workers wearing their new coats and holding heaters.
“You have to realize that you can actually achieve a goal in a very short period of time. It’s not impossible,” Todrys said. “You can’t wait around. You have to be the change you want to see.”
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